Among the Week 1 matchups is a clash of the two NFC East teams that failed to make the playoffs last year, Philadelphia and Washington. Whereas the Redskins were just a Week 17 win away from qualifying, the Eagles’ 2-9 slump from Weeks 5 to 15 included two defeats to Washington and took them out of the hunt.
Going into this season, however, not only do the Eagles have a big edge on the Redskins according to STATS’ production metrics – a 7.88-point spread despite being on the road – but they have the NFL’s second-ranked roster based on projected personnel.
So why the esteem for a last-place team? Look no further than Carson Wentz’s new weapons – Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. STATS’ X-Info data, which provides detailed insights on statistical events not captured via traditional data collection methods, tells us why.
Wentz set an NFL rookie record with 379 completions, but less than half went to his wideouts. Among quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts, his completion percentage to wide receivers was a league-worst 44.9. No NFC team had fewer explosive plays receiving – 25 yards or more – than the Eagles with 18, while Washington led the league with 45. Philadelphia was at the other end because Wentz didn’t have any game-breaking wideouts at his disposal. Jeffery and Smith change all of that.
Jeffery had 16 explosive plays in 17 games over the last two years, while the departed Jordan Matthews had 17 in 30. Jeffery’s last full season in 2014, he has 12 explosive plays. Give Smith a pass for those forgettable years in San Francisco and go back to his time with Joe Flacco, and he had 44 explosive plays in 64 games. Since he entered the NFL in 2011, Smith ranks 12th among all players in explosive plays receiving with 54, and he’s seventh in average yards at catch (11.8).
Before resorting to blaming Wentz’s inaccuracy or penchant for dumping off to a back or a tight end, let’s delve even deeper into X-Info to see why his wideouts may have been more at fault.
Last year’s combination of Matthews, Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor so often failed to create separation that Wentz had trouble completing balls downfield. The Eagles were 28th of 32 teams in yards at catch – yards the ball traveled in the air relative to the line of scrimmage on completions – at 5.04 per reception. The Eagles’ top player in that category was Matthews at 7.5, which ranked 68th in the league last season, while his replacement as Philly’s No. 1 receiver ranked ninth – Jeffery averaged 11.7.
Washington led that category, a number that will likely drop with the offseason departures of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.
Earning extra yards once the ball was completed also didn’t go in Wentz’s favor, as Philadelphia ranked 26th with 4.95 yards after catch per reception. Matthews ranked tied for 89th at 3.6, while Jeffery was exactly a half yard better.
The Eagles could make a big jump because Jeffery is known as an adept route runner who can beat defensive backs for 50-50 balls, and Smith is a better deep threat than Wentz has ever had. Plus, two established sets of hands should help – Wentz’s dropped passes quarterback rating last year was 20th of 27 qualifying QBs. Jeffery had one drop in 94 targets.
It’s easy to see why Matthews went from being top dog to the doghouse in Philly’s wide receiving corps, leading to his trade to the Bills for cornerback Ronald Darby. Criticized by the harsh Eagles’ faithful for having alligator arms, Matthews often failed to come up with key catches or get the extra yards needed. His clutch reception percentage – catches resulting in a first down or a touchdown – failed to surpass 52 in either of the past two seasons. Jeffery hasn’t been below 70 percent in the last three seasons, including 78.8 last year, which ranked fifth. Additionally, Agholor was at 41.7 percent last year and 47.8 in 2015.
Smith was at 70 percent last year and has averaged even more throughout his career. He’s just 28 years old and not far removed from being one of Flacco’s favorite targets. Wentz didn’t have that kind of home run-ball receiver as a rookie, so Smith could help spread the field given his ability to blow by defenders.
This week, Smith has the advantage of going against an extremely inexperienced safety in Deshazor Everett. The special-teams ace rarely saw the field on defense during his first two NFL seasons but was recently thrown into the starting role after 22-year-old Su’a Cravens shockingly announced he was considering retirement.
The prime-time matchup, though, will be Josh Norman on Jeffery. Norman had a solid first season with Washington, but it wasn’t exactly spectacular. The five touchdown passes he allowed were a career high, and of the 40 passes completed when he was the defensive target, the yards per burn was 13.6.
That was his worst mark since 2013 and about 2 1/2 yards worse than fellow Redskins corner Bashaud Breeland. In fact, Jeffery got the better of Norman last season when still with the Bears. He caught five passes for 92 yards largely with Norman shadowing him, and the former All-Pro corner was burned for a total of 81 yards on the day – his second-worst game total of 2016.
Despite the presence of Norman, the blossoming Kirk Cousins and the addition of new No. 1 wideout Terrelle Pryor, STATS’ production metrics have Washington with only the NFL’s 28th-ranked roster. That certainly doesn’t mean the Redskins can’t handle the Eagles on Sunday, but completing a third straight season sweep of their division rivals will be far from child’s play now that Wentz has some new toys at his disposal.
Dig deeper into X-Info data with STATS’ NFL 2017: